GMO products closer to reality

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The Ethiopian Biotech Institute (EBTi) sent the first biotech policy draft to the Prime Minister’s Office for approval by the Council of Ministers.
If the draft policy is approved by the council, it would be the first significant move by the government of Ethiopia to develop genetically modified organisms (GMO).
Ethiopia had strongly resisted bio-technology despite pressure from external partners. Recently, however it has become a reluctant supporter. A couple of years ago the country allowed research on BT cotton as they wanted to boost the textile industry which suffers from insufficient local production and relies on imports. Ethiopia has also begun researching genetically modified corn and false banana (enset), for human consumption.
Kassahun Tesfaye (PhD), Director General of EBTi, said that not having a GMO policy has affected development of biotechnology in Ethiopia. He believes the policy will help the country’s economy since Ethiopia wants to improve agricultural profits through industrialization, especially agro processing industries.
Our institute was expected to develop the policy and strategy so we have been developing the draft since last year. First we looked into 18 biotech policy areas but after consulting with the Council of Ministers we condensed the number of issues to eight, he said.
The areas covered in the draft policy include: expanding skilled professionals; ensuring quality, making sure there are adequate laboratories and related infrastructure, research and development and transferring technology to users. The policy also seeks to address bio safety, bio security and bio ethics.
Biotech by its nature is capital intensive since its infrastructure is expensive, and undertaking proper research takes money. The theory is that spending money on this is a good investment because it will improve the economy and support industrialization while expanding agricultural research. All of these are interconnected, according to the Director General of EBTi.
“The policy may not consider GMO for all crops, but we have to work on problems we can’t solve through conventional research. Otherwise we will not be able to compete with others and may be unable to survive,” he explained.
“For instance the cotton industry is dominated by GMO products so we should use it, but if there is an organic cotton market we can work on that strategically,” he added.
“We have to maintain our organic market but it may be difficult to be self-sufficient and improve our exports so GMO is a viable option,” Kassahun said.
Ethiopia ratified a science and technology policy about 17 years ago. The former Science and Technology Commission tried to develop a biotech policy but it was not successful. About four years ago the ministerial steering committee was established to develop the ten-year road map resulting in the formation of EBTI and the council.
The country has a bio safety program ratified in 2009 and improved in 2015 followed by research on some agricultural products and attempts to implement BT cotton.
Agriculture, industry and health are the major areas using biotechnology. This has significantly expanded since the mid 1990s. Several countries are engaged in the research and development of GMO products. However, many Europeans resist it.
The institute head said that the policy will attempt to determine if GMOs have a negative or positive effect. “We want to understand every direction when we conduct research,” he said.
Kassahun said that currently Europeans are producing some GMOs. He said that the fear of using of GMO products is not supported by scientific research. The sector has become a source of hard currency for other countries.